My TEDxYouth talk: Eating disorders have no face

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So you think you’re special?

It’s within human nature to want to stand out. Even through the need to fit in, there emerges a desire to have some personal quality or achievement that is special, above all those around you. After reflecting on a difficult couple of weeks, I come to the same conclusion I have before, time and time again. One overriding barrier to my own recovery is this need to excel or stand out somewhere or somehow. Society puts pressure on every young person and adult to talk about qualities of themselves, to talk in a way that puts them above the rest. But what if you have never found that thing that puts you ahead?

Being average in intelligence, average in personality, average in socialising, average in looks, average in sports, average in arts, average in drama, average but never outstanding. The list of mediocre qualities never ends. So perhaps this sense of never being good enough is the weight that forever causes doubt in the ability to recover, to find oneself, to feel confident to face demons. Yet mental illness is debilitating, scary, and just as fatal as any physical illness, so why would I, or anyone want to hold onto it?

I think too often, that an eating disorder is the only thing that makes me different to anyone else, even as weight restored – somehow I want it to be ‘my thing’, to the extent I almost self-sabotage my recovery, so I don’t lose the safety net of my identity. It can be the same for depression, having changed my nature and outlook so much, that I fall back on it as ‘who I am’, in comfort of a fear that I am not enough to be ‘me’. Perhaps mental health and talking about it is all I have to offer? But one should not forget; mental illness is not unique, it is not special, in fact it’s one of the most prominent and common factors in society. The reality is, there will always be someone better than us at something, one cannot strive for perfection, but instead can strive for progress. Our lives aren’t meant to look like anyone else’s, our journey is our own and that journey in itself, with all it’s paths, obstacles and goals is what truly makes us unique.

For so long, I have hidden behind my diagnoses, identifying myself by their name and not my own. I think it’s time to change.

Alone or Lonely?

In depression, there is a limit when it comes to convincing yourself that you’re isolated because you like being alone, being left alone is all you want. All you need to carry on is your own company and being alone is always preferable. The need to be alone leads to a constant insistence to push away those around you, push away the very people who are openly offering to help you and to lend a listening ear. Yet, all the while there is a persisting fear of loneliness. So why do we insist on pushing others away? When it’s inevitable that we’ll return home to an overwhelming sense of loneliness, further sinking us into depression, believing we have nobody to support us, forgetting that it was in fact us that rejected and ignored those whom tried to reach out to us in the first place.

Depression is a selfish illness, a self-centred world of dark and negative thoughts, emotions and behaviours, all leading to perpetual sense of being lost, lonely and hopeless. There is no room for anyone else because the mind is clouded by this self-focused cycle. It’s not to say that being alone is always a bad thing, we all need to time to ourselves, it can be refreshing and it’s healthy. But just like it does with everything, depression exaggerates this need to be alone. A swarm of fear is created, that one will be made to face the real world, a belief that one simply doesn’t have the energy to engage with others or leave the safety of being under a duvet. All of which are methods of faulty thinking, but very real and unavoidable concepts for the sufferer. This response is reflected in many from a young age- in the face of difficulty the response is to hide away, to suppress emotions in fear of making things worse, or to act out through aggression or other behaviours to separate oneself. This mechanism to shut others out should be challenged across all of society, both in the well and unwell.

The evidence shows that by having more social connections and networks, a happy life is much more likely, whilst being alone and without social contact can lead to lonely, unhappy lives with a much shorter life expectancy. If you have a friend with depression or whom appear withdrawn, don’t be disheartened if they are not in contact. Reach out to them, persist with it and offer kindness not rejection, visit them if you can – we visit and encourage the physically ill, it should be no different for the mentally ill. They are the ones who need contact but are too afraid or unknowing of how to reach out.

And if you’re the one in the thick of depression; don’t give up, make a change and try to face the world, face your demons, face everyday life and allow yourself to express your opinions and feelings, both to yourself and to others. Avoid shutting others out, being honest about your true feelings can go a long way to helping you and others understand. The need for some time alone is not something to be ashamed of, and those who are true friends will understand if you say that’s what you need. Set yourself goals to get in touch with others little by little, you can still have time alone without being lonely.

Wandering through life

There is an awkward stage between being entwined in a diagnosable illness, and what can be considered a ‘recovered’ person. The stage of mental health limbo, where symptoms are residual, bad patches still occur, thoughts and emotions are at times overwhelming, and slip ups are inevitable. But it’s presumed you’re ‘better’, you’re ‘strong’, because you’re over the worst of it. However this to me, is an incorrectly black and white illusion of mental health, as I’ve previously written; mental illness occurs along a spectrum. Similar to this recovery is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ prospect, it is a journey with ups and downs, and although I’m not entirely convinced there is any such thing as a ‘full recovery’ from mental illness, I do believe it can become ‘fully manageable’, with room for dips and highlights along the way.

In this limbo stage of recovery; where can you go for help? and how does one refer to oneself? A recovering alcoholic still has an addiction, they still need to work on their recovery, still need to work hard every single day and minute of their waking hours to avoid the liquid that could send them back down a slippery slope. They may not be drinking, but they are still fighting hard as ‘recovering alcoholics’. This in between stage can feel quite lost, an undefined category between health and ill, it is conflicting and scary to reach out for help, for instance something I found from my experience, is that reaching out is incredibly difficult in this stage, you don’t want to say words like ‘I’m depressed’ or ‘I’m anorexic’, because without the severe and obvious symptoms, nobody can see the internal struggles. It’s like giving yourself a name you are somehow not worthy of, for not being ‘ill enough’ or for not being ‘strong’ like others say you are. Yet when it comes to trying to express yourself, just saying it’s ‘a bad patch’ or ‘I’m just feeling low’ doesn’t express the utter and complete turmoil inside, saying you feel ‘depressed’ doesn’t even carry the impact it once did, it is unfortunately, an overused term.

If it is you in this stage of despair, then don’t forget you have as much right as anyone to reach out for help, get someone to fight your corner and get that help. Your journey is your own, no one else’s, don’t compare what you perceive as ‘less severe’ compared to someone else get in the way of your recovery. The fact you have realised you need that support and are willing to expect it, is something professionals need to recognize. That kind of attitude is hard to come by but it what makes therapy successful. We need to remember that these wandering, recovering bodies should not be forgotten, not by the family and friends surrounding them, healthcare professionals or even oneself. It may not be immediately life threatening, but a full blown mental illness is easy to fall back into. Don’t assume that someone out of hospital or presents themselves as healthy is ‘recovered’, mental illness is secretive, so keep in mind those who are recovering. A life of being residually unwell is no life at all.